Thursday, 28 February 2008

Senate House

I took this photograph in the late afternoon of Monday 14 November 2005, an exceptionally fine day. Bathed in suffuse golden light and set against a cloudless blue sky, Senate House resembles a scene from a Canaletto painting.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Sunday, 24 February 2008

The quest for the Proto-Indo-European homeland.

The Quest Begins
In 1786, a 40 year old English judge by the name of Sir William Jones made a remarkable observation suggesting far-reaching events many millennia previously; events that had left an eerie footprint in languages spoken by diverse people living thousands of miles apart, between which absolutely no link now existed in the historic record.

The son of a mathematician, Jones was a linguistic prodigy who had learning Greek, Latin, Persian and Arabic at an early age. Despite the death of his father when he was aged three, he went to school at Harrow and then on to Oxford. However, he was forced to work as a tutor in order to make ends meet and in 1770 he took up the legal profession, doubtless at least to some extent attracted by the prospect of financial security. After working as a circuit judge in Wales, he went out to India in 1783 to serve at the High Court in Calcutta. There he became interested in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, a language holding a position analogous to Latin in South and Southeast Asian culture. It dates to around 1500 BC and possibly earlier, and although it has not been spoken for many centuries, it is still used in religious texts and remains to this day as one of India’s 23 official languages.

Jones noted Sanskrit shared many similarities of both grammatical structure and vocabulary with Ancient Greek and Latin – all of which are “dead” languages that were current at roughly the same time. In a famous address to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, he claimed that these similarities could not be dismissed as chance and suggested all might have arisen from the same source. Jones also speculated that Gothic (the precursor of German), Celtic and Old Persian might also share the same common origin.

The idea that languages spoken in places as far apart as Iceland and India might be linked was startling to say the least, but the connection seemed real. Furthermore the language group – which was soon dubbed Indo-European - grew rapidly. In many cases, relationships among language groups were readily discernable and during the first half of the 19th Century, no fewer than nine major language groups were recognised as members. Thereafter progress was slower and it was not until the late 19th and early 20th Century that the last two major language groups were admitted to the fold. The Tocharian languages - once spoken in the Tarim Basin in Central Asia – were uncovered from a fifth century AD manuscript procured from a Buddhist monastery by the Hungarian-born archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein. Hittite – another lost language - was deciphered by Bedrich Hrozny in 1917 from cuniform tablets excavated in Anatolia some years earlier, and it and other related languages in the region are now recognised as making up the so-called Anatolian group.

Today, no fewer than eleven major Indo-European groups are recognised:

1) Celtic. Includes Welsh, Cornish, Manx; spoken Britain, Ireland, across Europe, from the Bay of Biscay and the North Sea to the Black Sea and the Upper Balkan Peninsula; first attested 1000-500 BC.
2) Italic. Includes Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, spoken in Italy; first attested 1000-500 BC.
3) Germanic. Includes Danish, German, Dutch and English, spoken in Germany and Scandinavia; first attested AD 1-500.
4) Baltic. Includes Latvian and Lithuanian, spoken east and south-east of the Baltic.
5) Slavic. Includes Russia, Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, spoken in Eastern Europe and the Balkans; first attested AD 500-1000.
6) Albanian. Spoken in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia; First attested AD 1500.
7) Greek. First attested 1500-1000 BC.
8) Anatolian. Includes Hittite, spoken Asia Minor; first attested 1500-2000 BC.
9) Armenian. First attested AD 1-500.
10) Indo-Aryan. Includes Sanskrit, Urdu, Hindi, Iranian, spoken in India and Iran, first attested 1500-1000 BC.
11) Tocharian. Spoken Tarim Basin, Central Asia; first attested AD 1-500.

In addition, ten minor groups are recognised: Lusitanian, Rhaetic, Venetic, South Picene, Messapic, Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian and Phrygian.

What does all this mean? During the course of his 1786 lectures, Sir William Jones also put forward the idea that the various ancient languages could all be traced back to “some central country” which he argued was Iran. He set in motion a debate that has continued ever since, during which the “central country” has been located at just about every point on Earth, leading the American scholar JP Mallory to comment “One does not ask ‘where is the Indo-European homeland?’ but rather ‘where do they put it now?’”.

That a group of languages – a so-called “language family” - can arise from a common origin was already accepted in Sir William Jones’ day. It had long been realised that French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc had all diverged from Latin and from each other after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD. Following the same chain of reasoning, it was therefore logical for the early Indo-European scholars to assume that Sir William Jones was right and that similarities between the Indo-European languages could be explained by divergence from a single ancestral language; and that its original speakers had arisen from one region. This hypothetical language was termed Ursprache by German scholars, or Proto-Indo-European (often abbreviated to PIE). Its’ supposed speakers became known as the Urvolk and their original homeland the Urheimat.

But who were the inhabitants of this homeland, when did they live and how did languages descended from their ancestral tongue come to be spoken across such an enormous area, far greater in extent than the Roman Empire? It really is the ultimate “whodunit”.

On the face of it, given the absence of anything in the historic record, the task facing Indo-European scholars in trying to answer any of these questions might seem impossible. In fact in the rather more than two centuries since Jones’ discovery, three main lines of enquiry have opened up – linguistics, archaeology and population genetics. The linguists moved into action almost immediately but prehistoric archaeology did not really develop as a discipline until the mid-19th Century; and not for another fifty years was archaeological evidence systematically called upon in attempts to solve the problem. Population genetics is a far more recent discipline and not enter the fray until the latter part of the 20th Century. Only now – with these three very different disciplines supported by statistics and modern computational methods – is a clear picture at last beginning to emerge.

How Languages spread and change
As linguistics was the first line of attack upon the Indo-European question, it makes sense to start with a review of the various linguistic and related methodologies that have been brought to bear on the problem since the 18th Century. Before tackling the Indo-European question in detail, however, we should first ask how a particular language comes to be spoken in a particular region?

Obviously when settlers move into a previously uninhabited region for the first time, they will bring their language with them. But the languages spoken by, for example, the people who moved into Britain and Northern Europe at the end of the last ice age have long since vanished. What happened to them? There are two things that can happen to a language once it has been introduced to a region – firstly it can be replaced by another language; secondly it can itself evolve.

Language replacement happens when the language spoken in a particular region is replaced by another brought in by people from a different region. There are a number of ways this can happen.

Subsistence/Demography occurs when large numbers of people move into a territory, bringing their language with them. The newcomers don’t have to be conquerors – the process usually refers to subsistence farmers moving into a territory previously inhabited only by hunter-gatherers. This is a process we shall return to in greater detail.

On the other hand elite dominance occurs when invaders conquer a territory and impose their language on native peoples. It will clearly be to the advantage of the subjugated people to learn the language of their conquerors when doing business, pursuing legal and religious matters, etc, though initially they will continue to converse in their native language when with friends and family. Although the first generation will only speak the new language as a second language, the next is likely to be fully bilingual, having been exposed to the both languages from birth, and the one after that will probably regard the old language as a second language, used mainly for conversing with their grandparents. Within a few generations the old language will die out altogether.

The classic example of elite dominance is the spread of Latin, which was originally confined to a small area around Rome. At that time, one would have had to have travelled no more than 40km north of Rome to find people speaking a different, albeit closely related language – Faliscan. Only a little further to the north, people were speaking Etruscan, a completely unrelated language. But as Rome’s power grew, Latin came to be spoken throughout the whole of Italy and eventually across large areas of Europe.

Another model of language replacement is system collapse, which occurs when an organised society collapses or at least retreats from the peripheries of its zone of influence and other groups move in to exploit the resulting power vacuum. This happened in Britain after the Romans left and the Angles, Saxons and Jutes moved in, bringing with them the West Germanic language from which in time English arose.

Finally there is lingua franca, where a trading language (pidgin) develops in a region as a result of trading or other activity by outsiders. Usually the pidgin is a simplified version of the outsider language. In time a creole – which is a brand-new language - may arise from the pidgin.

Language development as opposed to language replacement occurs over time because languages themselves are not static. There is nothing strange about this – in fact it would be strange if languages did not change with time. For this to be so, people would have to reproduce exactly the same sounds and idiom from one generation to the next, something contrary to human nature even if we isolated a population from social change, contact with other cultures, etc.

For a written language, change can easily be demonstrated by studying texts over a period of many centuries. English has undergone considerable change over the last millennium, as illustrated by these four versions of the 23rd Psalm:

Modern English
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In meadows of green grass he lets me lie.
To waters of repose he leads me.

Early Modern English
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters.

Middle English
Our Lord gouerneth me, and nothyng shal defailen to me.
In sted of pasture he sett me ther.
He norissed me upon water of fyllyng.

Old English
Drihten me raet, ne byth me nanes godes wan.
And he me geset on swyth good feohland.
And fedde me be waetera stathum.

Most of us will, if anything, be most familiar with the second version, which has a “biblical” feel to it but is in reality the way people spoke in Shakespeare’s day. But the third version is decidedly strange and the fourth might as well be written in a foreign language. Unlike Modern English, Old English was a fully-inflected language, and it also predates the enormous influx of so-called “loanwords” from French that occurred after 1066. It should be noted that the change is continuous – “Modern English”, “Early Modern English”, “Middle English” and “Old English” are no more than arbitrary points in the evolution of the English language. But how do these changes come about?

One way is by the “morphing” of words as one generation’s sloppy speech becomes the received version. As noted above, English was once an inflected language and nouns had case endings, but in time these fell into disuse – for example the plurals of “fox”, “tongue” and “book” were once “foxas”, “tungan” and “bec”. Some of these archaic forms do survive – for example ox/oxen, sheep/sheep, man/men, woman/women, and child/children.

Pronunciations also change with time – for example the silent “k” in words such as “knife”, “knee” and “knight” was once pronounced; the Old English forms of these words were “cnif”, “cne” and “cniht”. Similarly the “ch-“in words such as “chicken” and “cheese” was once pronounced as a hard “c-”, i.e. “cycen” and “cese”. A recent (trivial) example of pronunciation change is the planet Uranus, which before the advent of popular science broadcasting was usually pronounced with the stress on the second syllable – then about thirty years ago, somebody in authority must have become embarrassed and insisted on a change.

Another way a word can morph is by conflation with the indefinite article – for example “nickname” was once “eka name” – the now-archaic word “eka” meant “also”. But in time, people began to pronounce “an eka name” as “a neka name” from which the progress to “a nickname” was fairly straightforward. The reverse can also happen – oranges were once known as “noranges” (from Hindi) – but “a norange” eventually became “an orange”.

Not only do words morph, they can also acquire additional meanings, or change their meaning entirely. This process is known as semantic change. An obvious example is the word “gay”, which originally meant “carefree”. During the 20th Century the word gradually came to mean homosexual; but by the turn of the century it had acquired an additional pejorative meaning – to describe something as “gay” is to decry it. Other examples include “silly” (original meaning “glorious”), “villain” (a peasant farmer in feudal times) and “husband” (which originally meant manager of a house). The process continues - a future age might recall that “wicked” once meant “bad” and that “cool” meant the opposite of “warm”.

Not only do words morph and change their meaning; new words can be “borrowed” from other languages. As previously mentioned, English has borrowed heavily from French and such “loanwords” include “ability”, “finance”, “rendezvous” and “theatre”. But English also contains loanwords from other languages including “hinterland” (German); “bazaar” and “bungalow” (from Hindi); “alcohol”, “algebra” and “arsenal” (from Arabic).

Language change is as inevitable as death and taxation – only in a society of telepathically interconnected beings such as Star Trek’s Borg could things be any different.

But how can a group of languages can arise from a common origin? As already noted, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, etc all diverged from Latin, but how does this happen? Why are the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and Romanians not still speaking Latin, albeit a version that has changed since Roman times? The answer is that in a sense they are.

Just as a language is not fixed in time, so it also varies across regions. In reality there is no such a thing as a language, only dialects. Old English, in fact, had differing dialects from Day One as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain all spoke various dialects of West Germanic, all with their own peculiarities, resulting in at least three dialects of Old English – West Saxon, Northumbrian and Mercian. This state of affairs persisted over the centuries and what became known as “Standard” English was no more than the mixture of Essex and Middlesex dialects that happened to be spoken in London. But by the 1400s London had become the hub of the newly-established manuscript printing industry – so written English was more likely to be this version, which combined with London’s influence resulted in it becoming accepted as the “standard” version, although the other dialects were equally valid language systems. Similarly in France the Paris dialect came to predominate, with others being dismissed as “patois”.

Even in Roman times, different dialects of Latin were being spoken in different parts of the Empire. After the fall of Rome contacts between the various peoples reduced and the differences began to become more marked. Eventually the Latin dialects spoken in Italy, France, Spain, etc diverged to such an extent that they became distinct languages.

Reconstructing PIE
We are now in a position to consider what the linguistic evidence has to tell us about the Indo-European question. For over a century, scholars attempted to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland on the basis of linguistic arguments alone, without being able to call upon supporting evidence from any other source. The picture that emerged was blurred and often contradictory, but bearing in mind that Proto-Indo-European was never written down, what has been achieved is remarkable.

By examining cognates – words in different languages with shared roots - it proved possible to reconstruct much of the lost Proto-Indo-European language and build up its proto-lexicon or vocabulary. This task really got underway after around 1850, but important groundwork was done earlier.

In the early 19th Century, linguists discovered a powerful principle: sound shift, where phonetic features in one language differ from those of another in a consistent way. For example in Latin the f sound in many words corresponds to the b sound in Teutonic languages, thus frater in Latin becomes brother in English and Bruder in German. This principle was first noticed by Rasmus Christian Rask in 1818. It was later extended by Jakob Grimm, elder of the Brothers Grimm and is (perhaps a little unfairly) usually known as Grimm’s Law. However, some scholars insist on referring to it as Rask’s-Grimm’s Rule. Also around this time it was noticed that there are structural similarities between the languages, with words displaying similar grammatical case endings.

However before reconstruction of PIE could properly begin, it was necessary to form a better understanding of the relationships between the various daughter languages. Two models were put forward. The first, by August Schliecher in 1862 was the genealogical or “family tree” model of languages, which was influenced by Charles Darwin’s then recently-proposed Theory of Evolution. Languages with strong similarities languages such as French and Italian were grouped together; these groups were in turn linked to produce larger groups. It is assumed languages give rise to daughter languages; thus for example Italo-Celtic split to give Celtic and Italic, Italic then split to give Oscan, Umbrian and Latin. The model has a number of weaknesses. It assumes the different daughter languages remain isolated, whereas in practice this is not the case. For example English (a Germanic language) was heavily influenced by Medieval French and Latin (Italic). It also fails to explain similarities which cut across different language branches. These similarities are known as isoglosses. The best-known example of an isogloss is the so-called centum/satem division, named for the words for one hundred – centum in Latin and satem in Avestan (a liturgical Old Iranian language used to compose the sacred hymns and texts of the Zoroastrian Avesta).

A more realistic model was proposed by Johannes Schmidt in 1872. This was known as the wave hypothesis. On this picture, language changes spread out over a speech area like ripples on a pond. The main weakness of this model is that it assumes all the languages under consideration are all being spoken at the same time, whereas some may be separated from others by thousands of years. Despite their drawbacks, no universally-accepted alternative to these two models has ever been proposed.

Nevertheless linguists were in a position to commence the task of reconstructing PIE. For example the word “sheep” is avis (Lithuanian), ovis (Latin), ois (Greek), oveja (Spanish) and ewe (English). The PIE word is believed to have been *owis, the asterisk denoting a reconstructed word. Other reconstructed words include:

*mehter mother, *phator father, *swesor sister, *bhrater brother, *dhughater daughter, *suhnus son.

*owis sheep, *tauros bull, *gwous cow, *uksen ox, *porkos pig, *ekwos horse, *kapros goat, *mus mouse, *kwon dog.

*oinos one, *dwo two, *treyes three.

One thing that stands out about these words is their familiarity - even if their meaning isn’t immediately obvious it doesn’t take much working out. For example, ewe from *owis and hound from *kwon.

Much of the work of reconstruction was completed in the 19th Century, though refinement has continued ever since. New information has been incorporated as lost languages such as Hittite and Tocharian have come to light. Not all reconstructed words are regarded as equally secure. Ideally a reconstructed word should have a shared correspondence between a European language and a non-adjacent Asian one, but this is not always possible.

Having built up a picture of how the various Indo-European languages are related to each other and reconstructed some of the original language itself, can we make any inferences about the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their homeland? In fact a number of methodologies have been used with varying degrees of success to try and tease clues out of the linguistic data.

When was PIE spoken?
The most obvious question to tackle first is when was PIE spoken? Up until now we have assumed that it is prehistoric language, purely on basis of having no historic record of when and where it was spoken. We can set an upper limit by looking at when the various written Indo-European languages are first attested, and must therefore by that time have diverged from PIE. Just as Latin fell out of everyday use as French, Spanish, Italian, etc diverged from it, so we can assume that by the time the earliest Indo-European languages had diverged from PIE, PIE itself was no longer being spoken.

The three earliest are Anatolian, at c.2000 BC; Indo-Aryan, inferred from a treaty between the Mittani of Northern Mesopotamia and the Hittites dating to around 1400 BC; and Greek, which goes back to at least 1300 BC and probably rather earlier. Mycenaean Greek is attested by the Bronze Age Linear B tablets excavated in 1900 by Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos in Crete, and deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952. These three groups are sufficiently different from each other to suggest that they had all been going their separate ways well before 2000 BC - but how much earlier?

Linguistic Palaeontology
In the mid-19th Century an approach was set out known as linguistic palaeontology, named from an analogy with palaeontology - the study of the development of life of Earth based on the fossil record.

The basic assumption is that if a PIE word exists for something, then the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been familiar with it, and inferences can therefore be made about their material culture, social organisation and the geography of their homeland.

PIE contains many words for domestic animals such as sheep, cattle, goats, pigs and horses (though it uncertain whether these were domesticated or wild); but there are fewer words pertaining to agriculture. Words exist for wheels, axles and wheeled vehicles.

This led some to suppose that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were pastors (tending flocks of animals) rather than agriculturalists. On the basis of this argument many homelands were proposed during the 19th Century, with Central Asia and Northern Europe among the favourites. In 1890 Otto Schrader proposed the South Russian steppe, from the Carpathians to Central Asia. Nomad pastoralism has been practiced in this region since the time of the Scythians, who were a nation of nomadic pastors described by Herodotus around 440 BC. There was certainly no reason for Schrader not to suppose that the region had supported nomadic pastors since prehistoric times.

We now know that animal domestication and agriculture first appeared at around 8000 BC in the Near East, spreading gradually to southern Europe before moving both north and west and reaching the northern and western peripheries of Europe by around 4000 BC; the horse was first domesticated at around 4000 BC. The wheel was invented no earlier than 4000 BC.

So – if we accept these conclusions – we get a date for PIE that is no earlier than 4000 BC. But how safe is it to do so? Can we be sure that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had wheeled vehicles? The answer is “no”. In 1969 Calvert Watkins suggested that terms pertaining to wheeled vehicles were chiefly metaphorical extensions of older IE words with different meaning. For example *nobh- (wheel-hub) meant “navel” and the word for wheel itself, *kwekwlo- is derived from the root *kwel- “turn, revolve”. Another possibility is widespread borrowing of the word for wheel. Because the wheel was such a useful invention, the words pertaining to wheeled vehicles spread along with the things themselves. Subsequent sound-shifts in the borrowing languages would create the illusion that borrowed words were part of the proto-lexicon. Only if we reject these possibilities can we trust a date arrived at through linguistic palaeontology.

Reconstructed words for kin are a fertile ground for inferences about the social systems of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The systems by which people organize their kin vary across the world and a number of kinship systems are recognised by anthropologists, typically named for the ethnic groups among which they were first studied. A loose correlation has been found between kinship terminology and social and family organization.

The system with which most English-speaking people are familiar has separate words for each member of the nuclear family – “father”, “mother”, “brother”, “sister” – none of which are used for anybody who isn’t a member, with different terms being used for “aunt”, “uncle” and “cousin”. (I am ignoring here the colloquial use of the terms “aunt” and “uncle” within a family to refer to unrelated family friends.) We tend to take this system – which is actually termed the Eskimo system - so for granted that we don’t really think of it as a “system” at all, much less that other systems are possible.

In fact it is just one of many kinship systems. Some lump together fathers and uncles, and mothers and aunts. Others extend the definition of brothers and sisters to include male and female cousins. The Omaha system, practiced by the Native American Omaha tribe (and also the Dani tribe of Papua New Guinea and the Igbu of Nigeria) combines nephews and grandsons. The Omaha system is also associated with a strong patrilineal social organization, i.e. descent through the father’s line.

The PIE word *nepots actually means “grandson”. Less secure is that it also means “nephew” (which might have been a later meaning) but if so, it is possible that the Proto-Indo-European kinship system was of the Omaha type.

There is a cognate word for “king” in many Indo-European languages – e.g. Sanskrit raj, Latin rex and Old Irish ri. Some have taken this to imply that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were ruled by a king, implying a complex stratified society. (It has even been suggested that the absence of a word for “king” in some Indo-European languages is evidence for some kind of prehistoric revolution in which the king was driven out and the word was forgotten!)

In fact we need look no further than English to see that the whole notion of Proto-Indo-European kingship is highly suspect. The word “king” comes from the Old English cyning – the true cognate in English is “ruler”. The verb “to rule” can indeed mean to reign, but it also possible to rule on other matters - a point of law, or even whether or not a goal scored in a football match is offside. Finally it is possible to rule a straight line. The correspondence between straight lines and rules can be seen in the expression “to keep on the straight and narrow” and this correspondence is also found in other Indo-European languages. Rather than a king, the reconstructed word *reg might have referred to a tribal head, or simply an arbiter of right and wrong.

Linguistic palaeontology has also been used in attempts to locate the Proto-Indo-European homeland itself, this time by considering words for geographical features. PIE words exist for hills, mountains and swift-running rivers, leading some to suppose that the homeland was mountainous – Armenia has been suggested. But one need not actually live in mountainous terrain to be familiar with mountains. Few candidate homelands are so far away from any mountainous terrain that their inhabitants could dispense with words to describe it, and such inferences are questionable. PIE words for hot, cold, snow and ice, suggest a seasonally-varying (i.e. temperate) climate, but this really only rules out a homeland in the tropics.

Similarly attempts have been made to equate words for flora and fauna to the distributions of these. For example much effort has focussed on the beach tree and the salmon. Unfortunately we cannot be sure that the reconstructed word for the beach tree actually referred to it and not something else, such as the elder, oak or elm. Similarly with the salmon – did the PIE word refer to the Atlantic salmon or the salmon trout? The distributions of these species differ.

Later Linguistic approaches
Other linguistic methods have been brought into play in the quest for the Urheimat but they tend to produce results that can – to be candid – support more or less any conclusion desired. One such method is to consider the relationship between the Indo-European languages and those of other language families on the basis that the one showing the strongest affinities might serve as a pointer to the location of the Urheimat. In fact loanwords and grammatical loans have been discerned between Indo-European and all its neighbours – Uralic, Afro-Asiatic and Kartvelian; these have been used to support homelands set respectively in the Eurasian steppes, Anatolia and central Asia.

Even approaches that produce a definite conclusion are frequently contradicted by methods producing another. Cladistic correlation assumes that the family tree of the Indo-European languages corresponds to the geographical relationships between the various languages and that the first group to diverge from PIE will have a geographic seat in or close to the homeland. It is generally accepted that the earliest known split is that of Anatolian, suggesting a location for the homeland in or close to Anatolia.

The conservation principle makes the assumption that if a language has not moved it will have undergone less change than one that has due to the impact of what are known as substrate languages. A substrate language is one that is supplanted by a second one, but exerts an influence on the new language, e.g. through loanwords, with the consequence that the latter undergoes change. In the case of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, it is assumed that Indo-European languages spoken further away from the homeland will have experienced more change than those close to it, and those spoken in or near the homeland will be the least changed of all.

The Baltic languages, particularly Lithuanian, turn out to be strongly conservative. Lithuanian is a language that was once far more widespread than present-day Lithuania, extending into Russia. So either a Baltic or Russian homeland is suggested – rather at odds with the result obtained from cladistic correlation.

But neither approach is without its faults. The assumption family tree relationships can be equated to geographical locations is dubious. For example Indo-Iranian appears close to Greek and Armenian, but no obvious geographical relationship can be discerned. The conservation principle is also flawed in that the various languages entered the historical record at different times and were current at different times and a comparison across the full range of Indo-European languages cannot be done on a level playing field.

Returning now to the matter of when PIE was spoken, another method that has been used to seek a time-depth for it is glottochronology. First proposed by the American linguist Morris Swadesh in the mid-20th Century, it assumes that the core vocabulary of any language is lost at a consistent rate and can so be used as a “linguistic clock”. Swadesh used a core vocabulary of 200 words, later reduced to 100. By determining what fraction of the core vocabulary is cognate between two languages, an estimate can be made as to when they diverged from a common ancestor. Before the technique could be used, it was first necessary to determine the speed at which the “clock” runs - a figure for the rate of word loss. This was achieved by comparing pairs of languages where the date of divergence was known, and a figure of 14% per thousand years was obtained.

Critics of glottochronology point out that there is no reason to suppose that languages do lose words at a consistent rate; indeed every reason to suppose that the reverse is true as social factors change. Nevertheless when applied to various European languages glottochronology gives results that are in reasonable agreement with accepted dates; and when applied to PIE, the technique has tended to give time-depths of no earlier than 4000 BC – consistent with the findings of linguistic palaeontology. Does this mean that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had the wheel after all?

Not necessarily. In 2003 a study by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson using Bayesian inference gave a rather earlier date of 7000 BC, though with a secondary burst of linguistic expansion around 4000 BC. Bayesian inference – named for the 18th Century mathematician Rev. Thomas Bayes – is a powerful but computational-intensive statistical method that has been brought to the fore by the increased “number-crunching” abilities of modern computers.

We shall return to this interesting conclusion later.

Religion and Mythology
Another field of study that has long attracted Indo-European scholars is the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. Linguistic reconstructions do not produce many correspondences, although the word for “god” is widely attested: devas (Sanskrit), deus (Latin), dievas (Lithuanian) and dia (Old Irish). The reconstructed word is *deiwos. Rather more striking is the word *dyeus phater (sky father), better known to anybody familiar with Greek or Roman mythology as Zeus (Greek) or Jupiter (Roman). While there is an obvious temptation to assume, therefore, that the chief deity of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon was a brash thunderbolt-hurling alpha male, we cannot be certain that this was the case, as he seems less prominent in other religions and it has been suggested that his pre-eminence in Mediterranean religions was a later phenomenon involving his conflation with local weather deities.

Comparative mythology is another area of interest. The French scholar Georges Dumezil has been particularly active in this field, developing the notion of a ranked tripartite caste system underlying many Indo-European societies: priests at the top, then warriors and finally herder-cultivators. Thus in Vedic India there are the brahmanas (priests), ksatriyas (warriors) and vaisyas (herder-cultivators); in ancient Gaul these three were druids, equites (horsemen) and plebes. Each caste has its own gods – in Roman mythology there was the ruling god (Jupiter), the god of war (Mars) and the god of the people (Quirinus).

Does this tripartite structure suggest a common origin in an earlier proto-Indo-European institution? It is very plausible that the same phenomenon that spread Indo-European languages could also have spread institutions, customs, beliefs and legends – but only if a certain level of social complexity for Proto-Indo-European society is assumed.

Archaeology joins in
The above considerations have given us tantalizing but tentative insights into the possible worlds of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The picture is very blurred and most methodologies come with health warnings. More is needed to bring things into sharper focus, and clearly linguistic inferences can only be taken so far. If a convincing solution to the Proto-Indo-European problem is to be found, then evidence from other sources must also be considered.

The need for such an approach was recognised by the end of the 19th Century and first use of a methodology that included archaeological considerations was made by Gustaf Kossinna in 1902. He identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Corded Ware culture, a wide-spread culture that flourished across northern Europe between the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages, developing in various areas from 3200 BC to 2300 BC and who were named for the characteristic decoration of their pottery by means of impressions of fibre cord. Kossinna placed the homeland in North Germany and envisaged the Proto-Indo-Europeans expanding towards Iran and India, carrying their language eastwards. Kossinna was the first to equate pottery styles to specific peoples and their movements, a methodology that is still current.

Kossinna’s work was followed up by Sydney-born Vere Gordon Childe, a philologist by training, who rejected a career in politics because of his interest in archaeology. Childe coined the term “Neolithic Revolution” to describe the coming of agriculture and “Urban Revolution” to describe the subsequent transformation of agricultural villages into complex societies and he is considered to be one of the most influential figures of 20th Century archaeology.

In 1926 Childe published The Aryans: a study of Indo-European origins in which he surveyed the various archaeological cases for the homeland being located in Asia, Central Europe, North Europe and the South Russia steppe and, following Schrader, came down in favour of the latter. Childe equated the Proto-Indo-Europeans to the Kurgan culture, which embraces a series of cultures that occupied the steppe and forest-steppe of southern Ukraine and southern Russia, possibly originating in the Volga-Ural region. The word kurgan comes from the Russian word for their trademark barrows or burial mounds. Childe reversed the direction of Kossinna’s migrations, and had Corded Ware people moving westwards from the steppes of Russia rather than eastwards as Kossinna had proposed.

The word Aryan came to be applied to the Proto-Indo-European people during the 19th Century, though there is no evidence to suppose they applied the term to themselves. The word comes from the Sanskrit word arya, which means “noble”, “free”, “spiritual” or “skilful”. The name Iran literally means “Land of the Aryans”. Unfortunately the word Aryan is now so indelibly associated with the Nazis that post-war scholars have tended to avoid the term, and Childe – who was a committed socialist – later repudiated his work.

In the second half of the last century what are now regarded as the two main competing theories were both put forward. These are the Kurgan hypothesis, proposed by Lithuanian émigré Marija Gimbutas in a series of papers between 1956 and 1979; and the Anatolian hypothesis, set forward in detail by Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, in 1987.

The Kurgan hypothesis
Marija Gimbutas’ Kurgan hypothesis followed Childe in locating the homeland on the South Russian/Pontic-Caspian steppe and like him identified the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the Kurgan tradition. Drawing on both linguistic and archaeological evidence, Gimbutas envisaged the Kurgan people as a warlike male-dominated society, worshipping masculine sky-gods. They were a highly mobile society of nomad pastors, who used ox-drawn wagons and horses for transport. Only a few permanent settlements have been found – as could be expected for mobile people - and they are known mainly from their mortuary practices whereby the dead were interred in earthen or stone chambers, above which a burial mound was frequently erected.

By contrast the people of Neolithic Europe – or “Old Europe” to use Gimbutas’ term – were settled farmers, living in small family-based communities. Gimbutas characterised them as peaceful, matriarchal and possessing a mother goddess-centred religion.

Between 4000 and 2500 BC the Kurgan people expanded from the steppes in a series of hostile invasions, moving into Europe, the Caucasus and Anatolia and onwards towards India; and eastwards along the steppe into Central Asia. The archaeological record shows that Old Europe’s female-centric culture disappears and is replaced by that of Kurgan warriors. Fine ceramics and painted wares give way to cruder Kurgan material. Kurgan burials appear, generally confined to males and accompanied by arrows, spears, knives, horse-headed sceptres. There is evidence of suttee – an atrocious practice whereby women were killed on the deaths of their husbands - clear evidence of a male-dominated society. Stone stelae are seen in the Alpine region depicting horses, wagons, axes, spears and daggers – all of which are valued by a warlike society.

Thus Gimbutas claimed the Kurgan people brought about the collapse of the south-eastern European Neolithic culture and absorbed it into hybrid Kurgan societies. These “kurganised” societies then move north and westwards, eventually leading to the Corded Ware culture in northern Europe. Similar evidence is seen in the south Caucasus and Anatolia; and to the east in southern Siberia, from which the Iranians are derived.

Although widely accepted, the Kurgan Hypothesis has its critics. Many reject the exclusively military nature of the expansion and believe more complex factors were involved. One of these is the so-called “secondary products revolution”. In 1981 the late Andrew Sherratt noted that late in the European Neolithic there was an increased exploitation of such products as milk, cheese, wool and the use of animals for traction. Many of these new features – such as plough agriculture and increased stockbreeding would have enhanced the male role in productive economy. This may have brought about the social changes that Gimbutas attributed to invaders.

(See this article The Peopling of Europe for an account of the possible demographics of Neolithic Europe.)

The Anatolian Hypothesis
In 1987 Colin Renfrew put forward an entirely different model. According to Renfrew, the Indo-European languages were spread by Neolithic farmers, who originated in Anatolia at around 7000 BC, a date far earlier than that proposed for the Kurgan Hypothesis. In Archaeology and Language Renfrew summarised and then rejected all attempts to date to solve the Proto-Indo-European problem. He made three major criticisms of the Kurgan Hypothesis.

Renfrew’s first target was linguistic palaeontology and “the lure of the proto-lexicon”. We have already seen that this approach has its pitfalls. In addition to some of the points already noted above, Renfrew criticised the inference that the Proto-Indo-Europeans must have been nomadic pastors on the basis that the proto-lexicon contains more words for animal species than it does for plants. He pointed out that pastoralists are in fact dependent upon their co-existence with farmers. If the Proto-Indo-Europeans were familiar with domesticated sheep, goats or cattle, they must have also been familiar with wheat, barley and peas regardless of whether we have been able to reconstruct words for these species. The argument that the absence of these words implies the Proto-Indo-Europeans were pastoralists therefore collapses.

Renfrew then went on to challenge the assumption that of the appearance in a region of a new pottery style such as Corded Ware or Bell Beakers, or of new mortuary practices such as the kurgans, are evidence of migrations by corresponding groups of people. Kossinna, Childe, Gimbutas and others sought to explain cultural changes in terms of repeated waves of invasions, a viewpoint that was widely held by archaeologists during the first half of the last century. Thus the Beaker culture, an archaeological culture current in Western Europe between c.2800-1900 BC, was seen by Childe as “warlike invaders imbued with domineering habits and an appreciation of metal weapons and ornaments which inspired them to impose sufficient political unity on their new domain for some economic unification to follow”.

In fact, by the 1980s this “migrationist” view was becoming unfashionable. Renfrew saw the appearance of these objects as the result of cultural diffusion whereby ideas, cultural traits, material objects etc were spread from one local community to another independently of mass migrations, a model known as “peer polity interaction”. On this model, the characteristic pottery styles were simply spread either by trade or the development of the appropriate manufacturing skills rather than by hostile invaders.

Renfrew’s final criticism of the Kurgan hypothesis was that insufficient attention had been paid to the dynamics of the supposed expansion. Why would it take place at all? He questioned the whole notion of the homeland people as pastoral nomads. He argued that nomad pastoralism normally develops from mixed farming and herding, which would have been practiced in Central and Western Europe. Transhumance – where cattle are moved from the village to summer pastures – probably developed during the “secondary products revolution” mentioned earlier. Nomadic pastoralism in southern Russia was probably an adaptation to the steppes of older European transhumance. The western steppes must have been colonised from the west, their language must have also have been the language of farmers living to the west and not vice-versa as suggested by the Kurgan hypothesis.

Having rejected the Kurgan Hypothesis, Renfrew drew on the studies by Italian geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and his collaborator, American archaeologist Albert Ammerman. In papers published in 1973 and 1984, Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza claimed that Neolithic farmers had expanded across Europe in a slow continuous “wave of advance”, with farmers spreading out into previously-unfarmed regions as population pressures grew; with further expansion occurring as these regions in turn filled up, and so on. In support of this claim they put forward evidence based on the protein products of genes that showed a genetic gradient that spread across Europe in a south-east to north-west direction.

Renfrew proposed that the Proto-Indo-European expansion had begun 9,500 years ago in Anatolia, far earlier than had been proposed up until now. From Anatolia, the expansion had moved into Greece and from there in a north-westerly direction across Europe. He also offered a choice of two hypotheses as to the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages, which he referred to as Hypotheses A and B. Hypothesis A proposed a wave of advance similar to that proposed for Europe. Hypothesis B on the other hand invoked the steppe-invader model. Once the wave of advance reached the steppe and nomadic pastoralism developed, the pastors moved swiftly east across the steppes and into Iran and northern India, possibly taking advantage of (though not bringing about) the collapse of the Indus Valley civilization which flourished between 3000-1800 BC.

Renfrew’s theory attracted a lot of interest, but it was also criticized, largely because it seemed at times to fly in the face of linguistic evidence. But as we have seen much of this evidence is suspect. Archaeology can identify pottery styles and mortuary traditions – but again, some of the inferences that have in the past been drawn from these are questionable.

Linguistics and archaeology have led us to a choice of two theories, but which - if either - is correct?

The emerging synthesis
Colin Renfrew coined the term Archaeogenetics, which refers to the application of population genetics to the study of the human past. Techniques include the analysis of ancient DNA recovered from archaeological remains; the analysis of DNA from modern humans and domestic animals and plants in order to study migrations and the spread of farming practices; and the application of statistical methods to this data.

It is now necessary to give a very brief introduction to the science of genetics. The human body is comprised of cells, most of which contain a nucleus which holds two copies of what is known as the human genome. The human genome is a collection of genes and it is basically a set of instructions for making a complete human being, though the various types of cells generally implement only a few of those instructions depending on their function. One of our two genome copies comes from our mother and the other from our father.

Although the basic structure of the genome is identical for all human beings, the actual genes themselves can differ because a particular gene can exist in a number of different forms. Such genes are said to be polymorphic and each “version” is known as an allele. Different alleles are responsible for differences in such characteristics as blood groups, hair colour and eye colour.

It is these genetic polymorphisms that are the basis of population genetics, which dates back to World War I. Studies of blood groups carried out on soldiers and POWs showed that the proportions of individuals belonging to various blood groups depended on ethnicity. At that time only the classic ABO blood group polymorphism was known, though many others soon followed. O is the commonest type, but its frequency varies considerably from 61% in East Asia and 65% among Europeans to 98% among Native Americans.

In the 1960s Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and the British statistician Anthony Edwards began applying a statistical method known as principal component analysis to raw data compiled over several decades. Cavalli-Sforza later collaborated with Albert Ammerman to back up his “wave of advance” model with genetic data. He did in fact make his data available to Colin Renfrew but Renfrew felt at that time that genetic data based on blood groups could lead to misleading interpretations and chose not to use it.

At that time the study of DNA itself as opposed to its products (such as blood proteins) was still in its infancy. However in 1995 Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at Oxford University presented the results of his studies on mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are structures that exist in every cell and help cells to produce energy by production of a high-energy molecule known as ATP. Mitochondria contain their own DNA, a rather surprising state of affairs that suggests they were once free-living bacteria that took up residence in more advanced cells, initially as parasites but later in a mutually-beneficial relationship that has endured to the present day. In human sperm cells the mitochondria are located in the whiplash tail that is shed when the sperm penetrates and fertilizes an egg cell. The latter however retains its mitochondria; thus all mitochondrial DNA is passed through the maternal line and is said to be non-recombining, unlike nuclear DNA which is as we have seen an admixture of maternal and paternal components.

Sykes’ results appeared to show that only around twenty percent of modern Europeans could trace their ancestry back to the early Neolithic farmers. The immediate assumption was therefore that Renfrew was wrong. Nobody disputed that farming had spread gradually across Europe: the archaeological evidence was incontrovertible. But had farmers spread? Or had the idea of farming simply spread as Mesolithic hunter-gatherers gradually took up agriculture? In which case Renfrew’s theory was seriously flawed as it while it seemed highly plausible that hunter-gatherers could learn a new way of life from the farmers, it hardly seemed likely that they would choose to speak the farmers’ language in preference to their own.

In fact it is only a problem if one assumes that there was no intermarriage between the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and the incoming Neolithic farmers. Even a small number of such “mixed marriages” would gradually dilute the Neolithic genes with those of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. On this picture the observed “genetic gradient” is exactly what one would expect. But while the Neolithic genetic signal would gradually weaken, the linguistic signal would not. Anybody marrying into the farming community would have to learn the farmers’ language and their children would certainly come to speak it as their first language. It is easy for somebody to be of mixed-race; rather less so to speak half a language.

Does this mean that Renfrew is right and Gimbutas is wrong? Or could they both be right? Cavalli-Sforza thinks so. He believes that the original Anatolian farmers spoke and early form of Proto-Indo-European, which he describes Pre-PIE. The expansion occurred as Renfrew describes, eventually reaching the South Russian steppe. So Gimbutas’ Kurgan people were speaking a later version of Proto-Indo-European when they began their series of expansions from the steppe, which was if you like a “secondary urheimat”. This is in fact entirely consistent with the second of the two hypotheses presented by Renfrew to explain the spread of the Indo-Iranian languages.

Further support for this view comes from the Gray and Atkinson study which dated PIE (or Pre-PIE) to 7000 BC (when the Neolithic expansion began) with a secondary burst at 4000 BC (when the Kurgan expansion begun).

Is this the solution to the Indo-European problem; is the 220-year quest for the urheimat finally at an end? And if so, why did it take so long to come up with the answer?

Obviously the technology to investigate DNA and archaeological techniques such as radiocarbon dating did not exist in 1786, but that is not the whole picture. Part of the problem may have been tendency to look for a monocausal explanation analogous to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. In fact it was obvious even in Sir William Jones’ lifetime that this was not so because the Indo-European expansion was continuing, having begun a new phase after 1492. Christopher Columbus and his crew were certainly not the first Indo-European speakers to reach the Americas but they set in motion a process which eventually resulted in the linguistic domination of the New World by three Indo-European languages - Spanish, Portuguese and English. The relatively short time since the voyages of Columbus has seen the completion of a process that began shortly after the end of the last Ice Age.

If Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza is correct then the Indo-European expansion actually happened in three phases, millennia apart, in which technology and social conditions were totally different. Under such circumstances, seeking one all-encompassing explanation is clearly futile.

But it’s a big “if”. There have been many twists and turns in the lengthy quest for the Proto-Indo-European homeland, and it would be premature to suggest that the saga is definitely at an end.


Bellwood, P & Renfrew, C. (eds.) 2002: Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, McDonald Institute, Cambridge.

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 1996: The spread of agriculture and nomadic pastoralism: insights from genetics, linguistics and archaeology in The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia, edited by Harris, D.R., UCL Press, London.

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. 2000: Genes, Peoples and Languages, North Point Press, USA.

Gimbutas, M 1997: The Kurgan Culture and the Indo-Europeanization of Europe, edited by Dexter, M. R. and Jones-Bley, K, Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph No. 18.

Gray, R.D. & Atkinson, Q.D. 2003: Language-tree divergence times support Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, Nature vol. 426 pp 435-439.

Mallory, J.P. 1989: In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London.

Mallory, J.P. & Adams, D.Q.: 2006 The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, Oxford University Press.

McWhorter, J. 2002: The Power of Babel: a Natural History of Language, William Heinemann, London.

Renfrew, C. 1987: Archaeology and Language: the Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, Jonathon Cape, London.

Renfrew, C. 1999: Time Depth, Convergence Theory, and Innovation in Proto-Indo-European: ‘Old Europe’ as a PIE Linguistic Area, Journal of Indo-European Studies 27, 257-93.

Sykes, B. 2001: The Seven Daughters of Eve, Bantam Press, London.

Watkins, C. 1969: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA, USA.

Wells, S. 2002: The Journey of Man: a Genetic Odyssey, Penguin Books, London.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Saturday, 23 February 2008

The Moon in Daytime

Although the Moon is generally associated with night time, it actually spends as much time above the horizon in day time. These shots show the Moon in various phases in late afternoon or early evening, at various times of the year.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

"Articles" - a short story

As he followed the sullen guard from the elevator into a dimly lit rocky corridor, Falvar began to fear "protective custody" would turn out be "summary execution". From the slight but perceptible increase in pseudo-gravity, he deduced that they were a couple of hundred feet below the Realm's inner surface, which meant they must be in the detention centre's maximum-security wing. Unused in all the decades since leaving Earth's orbit, it has been the subject of innumerable popular rumours over the years, one of which was doing nothing to ease Falvar's nerves.

The guard stopped outside a forbidding door of ribbed steel. He pointed a remote at the door, keyed a security code, and it slid open.

"In there," he said coldly, speaking for the first time since they'd left the surface. He favoured the deposed Director with a frosty glare.

Falvar entered the narrow cell. It was reasonably well appointed, with two facing bench-seats/bunks and a table carved out of the solid rock, but there was dankness about it that the air conditioning could not entirely dispel. Of more interest to Falvar, though, was his cellmate. Sitting on one of bench-seats was Xeras.

She did not rise to greet him, but looked up, a resolute expression on her face.

"Hello Director."

"You do realise they're probably getting ready to space us both as we speak."

"Director, you don't seriously believe that old myth about the cells down here doubling as air-locks, do you?"

Despite everything that had happened in the last three days, Falvar found Xeras's familiar assertive voice as reassuring as ever.

"You'll forgive me if I'm a little jittery," he said. "I've just been "rescued" - if that is the right word - from a lynch mob. You and me aren't exactly the two most popular people on the Realm."

"Which is why we are both down here - for our own safety. There are still sixty feet of rock below us, to say nothing of the ice shield. Believe me, if they wanted to quietly tip us out into space, they wouldn't put us down here."

There were doubtless other means by which they could be conveniently disposed of, but Falvar did not pursue the matter. He settled himself on the seat facing Xeras.

"We're down here because you disobeyed a direct order to disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm," he said, aware as he said it how ineffectual it sounded.

"You were no longer in a position to give orders, sir," Xeras replied firmly. "The only authority operative was that vested in me by the Articles, and I acted accordingly."

"The Articles!" Falvar exploded. "What in God's name does devastating a planet have to do with the Articles? You've wiped out the avisaurs out along with everything else."

Grimly he recalled the latest probe images from the planet, broadcast over the Realm's news channel that morning, the third day after the impact.

The planet was still ablaze from pole to pole. Already, billions of tons of soot, together with ejecta from the impact itself were turning the skies black. Soon the once-inviting world would be plunged into a winter that would last for two years, though the destruction of the ozone layer and acid rain would render it uninhabitable for at least a century.

An hour after the broadcast, a mob had attacked Falvar's residence, where he had been held under house arrest since Theox's revolution.

Xeras rose to her feet and from a locker in one corner of the cell she produced her palmtop computer, which she had been allowed to retain.

"Allow me to explain, sir. There's something we missed, something absolutely crucial..."

Looking up, Director Falvar saw not the comforting familiarity of the Realm's cities, fields, forests and rivers - instead there was a strange blue void, apparently forming a vast bowl over his head, punctuated only by fluffy white and grey amorphous shapes. He tried to keep his breathing normal. He did not want to let his agoraphobia show.

"The holosims can never really prepare you for this, sir," Xeras said. The note of sympathy in the young Science Officer's voice made it clear she'd had no difficulty in reading Falvar's body language. Equally clear was that she was quite unperturbed by the scene, despite it also being her first trip down to the surface.

Rather shamefacedly, Falvar did take a deep breath and tried to take full stock of his surroundings. The elevated heath on which the shuttle had landed sloped gently away from him, meeting a large lake at its foot, about a mile away. On the far side of the lake was a forest which stretched away to what he knew was the "horizon". But on the near shore was something that would have added to his unease - a mile distant or not - had he not swiftly recognised the great long-necked sauropod as a species definitely identified as vegetarian in dietary habit. His nervous system must have been running a second or two ahead of his thought processes; his heart started pounding.

The blue coloration of the "sky"(that was the word, wasn't it?) was an optical effect caused by scattering of light from the planet's primary, the still-blinding yellow disc low in the west that he had been so strongly advised to avoid looking at. He could feel its warmth on his face: in fact he was now beginning to feel uncomfortably hot. Or was it the psychological effect of being this close to a star - something that Falvar was used to thinking of as a remote point of light.

He became uncomfortably aware that he was a tiny speck of organic matter standing on the outside of a solid body, with only the force of gravity stopping both the atmosphere and himself from flying away into space... he felt a renewed rush of agoraphobia. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes. He tried to take a hold of himself. He took a deep breath and told himself that his people had evolved and lived on Earth, and that Earth was - or at least had been - a planet just like the one upon which he was now standing. But he felt no immediate urge to open his eyes again.
Temporarily deprived of vision, he became aware of the clamour of other senses - the constant chatter of the planet's primitive, toothed birds, the distant roar of a creature somewhere down in the forest. He felt a gentle, cooling breeze on his face and became aware that the combination of it and the star's warmth was infinitely more pleasant than the effect of the great daylight lamps strung along the Realm's central axis. He took another deep breath. The air was fresh - it was indescribably different from the sterile, recycled atmosphere of the Realm.

He reopened his eyes, feeling much better. Yes, this was a beautiful world. The sort of world Earth had been once, many centuries ago, if the records were to be believed. Just the sort of world the Falandrafar Foundation had intended them to settle. But, if Xeras was right, there was one detail that was going to be a problem. And God only knew how they were going to get round it.

"How long do we have?" he asked.

"To make our rendezvous with the comet, we need to leave here within twelve hours," replied Xeras. "There's only an hour to sunset, we have plenty of time."

"Let's deploy the ground-effect vehicle," said Xeras.

Night was falling as the ground-effect vehicle hummed across the surface of the lake. The sauropod Falvar had seen earlier had gone; he was not sure whether he was disappointed or not at being unable to see the great beast at close quarters, herbivore or not. In the west a brilliant object was visible. For a moment Falvar thought it must be the comet, then he realised it would still be a morning object from this hemisphere. It must be the next planet inwards from this one he could see, a virtual twin in size, but utterly inhospitable. Rising in the east Falvar could see the planet's solitary moon rising. It was not quite full and even with the naked eye he could make out considerable detail on its surface.

"Unremarkable," said Xeras. "Much smaller than Earth's moon, and indeed similar moons we've seen in other systems. As far as we can tell, they are all formed in the same way, coalescing out of ejecta from collisions between their primaries and large primordial bodies."

"Still an impressive sight, though," said Falvar.

"We're almost there, sir," said Xeras, checking the vehicle's GPS. A constellation of twelve navigation satellites had been placed in orbit around the planet; it had eliminated the need to leave marker beacons at sites of interest. Xeras switched the vehicle to silent running mode. Its engine hum sank to a whisper, but it lost height and was now suspended only a few inches above the water.

Falvar stared at the leafy shore. "I don't see anything."

"The creatures are small, sir," said Xeras. "And they won't become active until after dark."

"While we are waiting, perhaps you could summarise what your team has found," said Falvar. "In layman's terms, please - I feel I might have missed some of the detail in your reports."

"Very well, sir," said Xeras, "First of all I must point out that the bulk of the data has by necessity come from the robot surface probes that are still exploring the planet. However my team has found nothing that conflicts with the probe data. The planet's biosphere is remarkably like that of Earth. Life is DNA-based, there are three domains - anaerobic bacteria, which probably evolved first: normal bacteria: and eukaryotic forms broadly split up into protozoa, plants, fungi and animals. We've identified around 30 animal phyla, including chordates and arthropods --"

"I said in layman's terms," protested Falvar.

"What I mean is we are seeing that local life forms are similar at the most fundamental levels to those that lived on Earth," said Xeras. "One consequence of this is that all the proteins, sugars, vitamins, etc. that we require for sustenance can be obtained from animal and vegetable sources, either by extraction or - in most cases - by direct assimilation."

"In other words the food is edible," said Falvar.

"I believe that is what I said, sir."

The trouble was she probably did. "Continue," Falvar grunted.

"Very good sir," said Xeras. "We have been able to show, with a high degree of confidence, that although there are several classes of bacteriological and viral organisms that are harmful to us, there are none that are resistant to standard antibiotic and immunisation techniques."

They could eat the food and there were no harmful diseases they couldn't cope with. Coupled with the favourable geological reports and that the sun would be good for at least a billion years, the planet was ideal for their purposes, but for that one bloody thing - unless there was some kind of get-out.

"The final consequence," continued Xeras, "is we can predict the future course of evolution on this planet with considerable accuracy. Great changes will occur among the land-living vertebrates within the next five million years --"

She broke off, reached for a pair of dark-vision binoculars and trained them on the shore. She must have heard something move on the shore - the light was now too dim to see anything with the unaided eye.

"Can you see anything?" said Falvar.

"I heard something, sir," said Xeras. She swept the binoculars slightly from side to side. "Yes, there they are. Out a little sooner than last time."

Falvar picked up a second set of binoculars. "Lead me in," he said.

"Yes sir," Xeras said, activating the short-range direction sender on her binoculars.

A red targeting grid appeared in the bottom left corner of the view field in Falvar's binoculars. He swung them round until the grid was centred. A few dim trees and that was it.

"I don't see anything," he snapped.

"The gain, sir," said Xeras evenly.

Hell! He really was doing a good job of making himself look like a complete idiot on this trip. He turned up the gain on the binoculars' light intensifier and zoomed in. There! Scurrying around were three small, feathered bipedal animals.

"Tell me about these creatures," he said.

"They represent a class of vertebrate intermediate in form between reptiles and birds. The group evolved fairly recently from archosaur stock and is not yet widespread. We've called them the avisaurs, or bird-lizards. They are warm blooded, like birds and several archosaur species. But here the feature has evolved to accommodate the energy requirements of a comparatively large brain, not to sustain powered flight. The brain in turn has evolved in response to the need to survive by it rather than brawn in a world dominated by archosaurs - and it has an important consequence."

Falvar took a deep breath. "You are seriously expecting me to believe that these little creatures will go on to develop a civilisation?" he said.

"Not exactly, sir," said Xeras. "What is happening on this planet is a long term drop in global temperatures. This is being caused by continental movements and their effects on weather systems, and will result in the planet being subject to periodic ice ages."

"Like the ones that are supposed to have occurred in prehistory back home, before The Warming?" said Falvar.

"Yes, sir," said Xeras. "Our forbears lived through them, as will these small warm-bloods here, as will the archosaurs. But our projections show that each ice age will progressively weaken the grip of the archosaurs, and descendants of the little avisaurs you see here will fill each evolutionary niche as it falls vacant. Eventually - about seventy-five million years from now - this will appear."

Xeras produced a palm-top showing a computer-generated image of a feathered biped. The creature was humanoid, but did not look in the least bit human. The prominent bony crest on its forehead was the most obvious difference, but it differed also in numerous other more minor ways.

"How intelligent are these creatures - or how intelligent will they be?" said Falvar.

"As intelligent as we are, sir," said Xeras. "There is no doubt they will achieve a global civilisation."

"Assuming they evolve at all."

"All five Projection Programs predict that they will, with mean confidence of ninety-five percent," said Xeras solemnly. "You know what that means, sir."

Yes, Falvar knew what it meant. He had known since he'd read Xeras's reports, but he'd needed to make certain for himself.

"I've seen enough," he said. "We have a comet to deflect."

The cometary nucleus was close now, its mottled bulk filling the entire viewing-screen. The dust tail was visible only as a white glow off to one side. A fainter blue glow marked the ion tail. Falvar could make out surface features resembling small craters and mountains. Suddenly, a luminous fog filled the screen, through which the surface could only be seen dimly.

He watched as Xeras activated the smaller graphical display on the screen. Their trajectory was fine; their velocity relative to the comet was now less than eighty miles per hour.

"Three minutes to optimum release point," said Xeras.

The comet's nucleus measured roughly eight miles by five: not enormous by cometary standards, but more than large enough for their purposes - assuming they did go on... what was he thinking of? Of course they were going on, there was no way they could stay and his only motives for insisting on hitching a ride to see for himself was to delay the inevitable decision he knew he must make. It was the only decision he could make under the Articles, but was it the right decision? Theox, of course, would not think so.

Two minutes to go.

The Chief Councillor had recently thrown his weight behind the campaign to abolish the Articles and replace them with a written Constitution vesting supreme authority in a democratically elected civilian government, rather than the Director.

You can't run a spaceship by committee - not even one as big as the Realm. But the issues addressed by the Articles went way beyond the running of a spaceship - they addressed the whole future of the human race and its role in the universe. Surely such matters should be considered and evaluated by the whole of that race... who was he, or the long-dead Falandrafar for that matter, to say that ordinary people were not to be entrusted with such matters? I do solemnly swear to uphold the Articles of the Realm so help me God. Fifteen words that guaranteed a lifetime of unswerving devotion to the Articles from every cadet inducted into the Crew.

"The psychological tests provided for in the Articles ensure that only people of a certain mindset were accepted for cadet training. People who fit readily into what is a military caste in all but name."

So Theox had said in one of his recent speeches. But the Chief Councillor was wrong, because here he was - Falvar, Director of the Realm - having serious doubts about what he was doing. Or was Theox wrong? Falvar intended to do as the Articles decreed anyway.

Only one minute to go now.

There was little to do; the release was automatic and the device was programmed to carry out its mission without human guidance. Outside, little could be seen through the nacreous glow of the comet's inner coma - the nucleus was already extremely active, despite still being ten days from perihelion.

There was a gentle shudder as the device left its cradle. Simultaneously, Falvar felt the firm grip of the restraining fields on his body and the shuttle went to full acceleration, pushing him back into his seat. Presently the brighter stars began to shine through fast-thinning fog as the shuttle cleared the comet's inner coma. He saw Xeras checking the telemetry from the device.

"All systems nominal. Chemical motor has successfully killed residual velocity relative to comet," she reported.

Two minutes passed. Outside, the last wisps of gas were flying past. The comet's brilliant dust tail, still greatly foreshortened, came into view along with the fainter blue ion tail. Xeras set the main viewer to departure angle, back along the way they'd come. Another minute passed with interminable slowness. Supposing the device failed to have the desired effect? It was sheer luck a suitable comet had been so close to perihelion - if anything went wrong, they'd have to wait months if not years for another opportunity.

Sheer good luck... or sheer bad luck? Stop thinking like that, he told himself furiously. A blinding white glare filled the screen. At a distance of three miles from the surface of the nucleus, the device had irradiated around a third of the surface with hard gamma rays. The comet appeared to develop a third tail, tangential to the other two, as over a billion tons of water methane and ammonia ices were converted instantly to superheated gas.

There was a danger that the rocket-like thrust so imparted would shatter the nucleus, but so far all looked well as radar images confirmed it was still intact, albeit erupting furiously in a dozen places on the shocked surface.

The shuttle was comfortably outrunning the expanding gas cloud, which had increased the luminosity of the comet by several magnitudes. It must be a spectacular sight now from the third planet. Of course, if all had gone according to plan, in a few weeks time it was going to become considerably more spectacular. It would swing by at just fifty thousand miles, using the planet as a gravity brake to place it in a near-circular orbit around the sun, permitting its desperately needed resources to be mined at leisure.

"It looks like the deflection has been a success," said Xeras. "Though we did err on the side of caution, and my guess is we'll have to fine-tune the trajectory with a second device just before the comet approaches the third planet in twenty-three days time."

"Take us back to the Realm," said Falvar.

As he waited for Theox to arrive, Falvar stared up through the glass-domed roof of his private office in the Realm's Control Centre. The daylight lamps were approaching full strength, flooding the Realm with their golden glow. There were still a few of the original inhabitants of the Realm left alive. Now, for the first time, he could truly appreciate what it must have been like to watch a sunrise on Earth - a proper sunrise, not the switching on of a glorified light bulb.

At forty-eight, Falvar was still just about young enough to have hope that a suitable planet might be found in his lifetime.

But Theox was one of those original voyagers, and at his age there was no such hope.
The telephone on his desk chimed. It was his secretary, announcing the arrival of Theox. "Show him in," he said and rose to greet the elderly politician, whose face was set in an angry glare. There's been a leak, Falvar thought. That's all we need. "Thank you for coming to see me, Chief Councillor," he said a little lamely.

"Let's not waste time on pleasantries, Falvar," Theox growled. "We both know why I'm here. I have it on good authority that a comet has been diverted into a suitable orbit for us to mine it. Why would we do that if we didn't need to refurbish the Realm's ice shield, so we can continue the voyage?"

"We've found life-forms on the planet that will almost certainly evolve into intelligent beings," said Falvar defensively.


"All five of the Projection Programs give the same answer, with a mean confidence far greater than that specified by the Articles."

"Very well," said Theox, "let's assume for the sake of argument that the results are valid. You are saying that we are going to turn our backs on the first planet we've found completely suitable for colonisation because of some avisaurs that will become intelligent millions of years from now?"

Falvar made a mental note to carpet Security Chief Naxxy as soon as the meeting was over.
"Article 1 is quite unequivocal on the matter," he said.

"Seventy-five million years in the future?" said Theox, his voice rising. "Do you seriously think we should be thinking so far ahead? We are an intelligent species existing now."

"The Articles --" began Falvar.

"To hell with the Articles!" stormed Theox. "You know perfectly well they are an irrelevant doctrine, compiled by humans long dead, who furthermore knew perfectly well that they would never have to live with the possible consequences."

Falvar was silent for a moment, struggling to keep heretical thoughts at bay. "Do you seriously think that Falandrafar spent thirty years setting up the Foundation and getting the construction of the Realm started, then devised the Articles as an act of spite because he knew he'd be dead long before it reached its destination?"

Theox must have sensed his doubt and appeared visibly less angry. "I think you've got to accept that he was under tremendous pressure throughout all those years, and that he was terminally ill when he drew up the Articles might have clouded his judgement."

"Nobody wants to leave this world behind," Falvar said. "But we have no choice."

"Wrong," said Theox, with a return to his aggressive manner. "You have no choice. The Crew have no choice. But I never swore to uphold your precious Articles and neither did the vast majority of the people on this Realm."

"What are you saying?"

"I suppose it has occurred to you that as the Crew are outnumbered about a thousand to one by the civilian population, if enough civilians felt strongly enough about it, there's not a lot you could do to force us to continue the voyage. Especially as the Articles prohibit the Crew from bearing arms."

"Is that a threat, Chief Councillor?"

"No, Director, merely an observation."

The Primary Control Room was bustling with activity as Xeras' shuttle made its final approach to the comet, but Falvar, seated beside First Officer Cephella on the command dais, had little to do but stare up at the display cluster. The large main monitor was displaying images of the comet. Smaller monitors were still showing probe images from the third planet, but nobody was paying them any attention. He had heard, though, that Xeras had been taking data feeds from the surface probes throughout her two-day journey to intercept the comet.

Maybe Theox had been planning a revolution, but had been unable to drum up the necessary support. The daily demonstrations outside the Control Centre had been growing steadily smaller for the last week. It wasn't that surprising, really. Ninety percent of the population had been born on the Realm; probably a significant number of those found the prospect of adapting to a wholly new way of life daunting, even if they wouldn't admit it. Notably few of the few remaining protestors were under fifty.

Or was there something he'd missed? There was something about that exchange with Theox. It wasn't just an observation; it hadn't sounded like an idle threat either.

Falvar tried to tell himself he was being paranoid. Or was he secretly hoping a revolution would let him off the hook?

The comet was getting close now, but the release point was still some minutes away. Xeras signalled that she had fired her retro-rockets to kill the shuttle's residual relative motion with respect to the comet.

The nuclear device, much lower in yield to the one detonated twenty-three days earlier, would fine-adjust the comet's trajectory, so it would make a close approach to the planet, travelling against the direction of its orbital motion. The effect would be the reverse of a gravity assist - a gravity break. Success was vital. Without the comet, the voyage could not be continued. It would be months, if not years before another suitable comet could be located. Which just might give Theox the time he needed to organise a revolt.

Falvar became aware of a commotion behind him, but nobody on the command dais moved or spoke. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Security Chief Naxxy. He looked round. About a dozen of Naxxy's men were fanning out across the Control Room.

"What the hell is going on?" he barked at Cephella.

The First Officer looked him straight in the eye. "Recall Xeras, Director. Order her to disarm the nuclear device and return here immediately."


"Recall Xeras, Director. It's over. I'm relieving you of command."

Falvar rose to his feet. "On what authority?"

"Mine, Director," said a voice behind Falvar.

He spun round to see Theox standing behind the command dais.

"Pending free elections, the Realm is now under a provisional civilian government headed up by myself," Theox continued calmly. "The Articles have been suspended and Crew functions will from now on be under the command of Cephella."

Falvar stared round the Control Room, now liberally sprinkled with security men. It was obvious that only a minority of the Crew had joined the mutiny, but nobody looked willing to actively oppose it either. He could now quite reasonably surrender responsibility for abandoning the planet. He felt a guilty - and short-lived sense of relief.

Because he did still have one option.

"Suppose I refuse to order Xeras to abort the comet-deflection mission? You need to stop the mission, don't you? Because if you don't, your revolution might fail."

"You are perfectly correct," replied Theox, "but Xeras' mission will fail anyway if you don't order her to abort. Her nuclear device is booby-trapped. If she attempts to launch it, it will detonate immediately."

"You're bluffing."

Theox looked Falvar in the eye. "Are you prepared to take a chance, Director?"

"This is nothing short of terrorism," stormed Falvar.

"I greatly respect the principles behind the Articles, but I have to think of the million people we've got here on the Realm. We will do what we can for the avisaurs - perhaps our distant descendants will share the planet with another intelligent species."

Wearily, Falvar resumed his seat and looked over to Cephella. "Patch me through to Xeras."

"A word of advice, Falvar," said Theox. "Don't try warning Xeras. She's foolish enough to think it's a bluff too."

"You have contact, Director," said Cephella.

The fuzzy image of Xeras appeared, somewhat degraded by increasing interference from the comet's ion tail. A delay of few seconds followed, due to the distance between the shuttle and the Realm, then radio crackled into life.


"Forget the honorifics, Xeras, it's plain Falvar from now on. Theox has staged a revolution. The mission is aborted. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm."

Another pause followed. Then:

"I regret, sir, that I am unable to comply."

Falvar felt an irrational flash of anger. Was everybody going to mutiny today? "Dammit, Xeras, I'm giving you a direct order. Disarm your nuclear device and return to the Realm!"

Falvar waited for a reply, but there was none. The display cluster blanked out. He stared at Cephella.

"Nothing to do with us, sir, she's broken contact." The voice was urgent, the "sir" probably a subconscious lapse. "But I'm still getting telemetry. She's launched the device."

"The bomb..." started Falvar. The words died on his lips. Obviously there was no bomb.

Theox shrugged. "You were correct, Falvar, it was a bluff. We considered it, but none of our supporters among the Crew wanted to know."

Falvar ignored him. "Surely she's not at the release point yet?"

"She isn't... Astronomy now confirm detonation."

"Where's that damned comet going to end up if the device went off early?" said Theox nervously.

"We'll know in a few minutes, Councillor," said Cephella. "I'll put the projections up on the screen."

Once again, the display cluster came back to life, this time with a series of graphics representing the shifting trajectory of the comet and the orbit of the planet. The plot lines stabilised. Falvar was still trying to interpret the display when he heard Cephella gasp in horror...

"You do know that the probes on the planet were still returning data. Since nobody else was interested, I had it fed to me on the shuttle. Look at this."

Falvar took the proffered palm-top from Xeras. "Mice?" he exclaimed, staring at the image of the small furry mammals displayed.

"No, sir," said Xeras, "these creatures are primitive insectivores. Like the avisaurs, they are shy and nocturnal - and a lot smaller and even more elusive. Which is why they were missed at first. Like the avisaurs, they have evolved comparatively large brains, for basically the same reasons. But there is one important difference. These mammals will survive the impact winter - they will simply hibernate through it. The world they will wake up to won't be pleasant - but they'll be the largest living things in it."

"Are you saying that a race of intelligent beings will arise from these creatures?" said Falvar.

Xeras took back the palmtop, tapped at its screen with a stylus and handed it over once more. In place of the insectivores was a computer-generated image of two bipeds standing side by side. The left-hand biped was far more passably human than the projection Xeras had shown Falvar down on the now-devastated planet, the one difference being that it had neither feathers nor scales. But the one on the right showed some differences. It was smaller, more rounded at the hips and two protuberances were present on the upper torso. These, combined with its smooth skin, gave it a weirdly sensual appearance.

"The one on the right is female," Xeras said.

Falvar tried to suppress his almost sexual reaction to the female's appearance. "The one on the right is smaller," he said.

"Sexual dimorphism," said Xeras, which left Falvar none the wiser. "The female is also wider around the hips to accommodate the birth canal - like all mammals, she gives birth to live offspring, rather than laying eggs. She also has two milk-producing organs on her upper torso. Other than that, these creatures, which will probably evolve in around sixty-five million years from now, are remarkably similar to humans. A classic example of convergent evolution, I would say."

"But that still doesn't alter the fact that you've violated the Articles - the impact's left the way clear for these creatures rather than the avisaurs."

"No sir. We were wrong about the avisaurs - the mammals would have supplanted both them and the archosaurs regardless. But without the impact it would have taken much longer. All I've done is speed things up by a few million years."

Falvar looked at the graphical image again. "Give them scales like us and I'd be convinced they were human."

"They are human, sir, or will be," said Xeras.

"How so?" said Falvar. "They are, after all, alien beings. They are not of Earth. They aren't even reptiles."

""Human". "Earth". Did you realize that both terms are derived from words meaning "topsoil"? That is so for every culture in our history, implying a harmony between the land and the people which I like to think we never entirely lost, despite the mess we eventually made of Earth."


"As with different cultures on our homeworld, so with different races on different planets. We'll never know, of course, but I'd be surprised if these creatures do not come to think of themselves as human, and that planet down there as Earth."

© Christopher Seddon 2001, 2008

Sunday, 17 February 2008

The Trouble with Online Dating

Dating, Technology and the Human Condition
Dating websites have been with us since the turn of the millennium and are an inevitable consequence of the internet, which came into widespread use during the previous decade. The logic behind such sites is inexorable – if you can order goods and services and book holidays online, why should you not look for a partner? On the face of it, online dating is the “killer app” of the singles scene. Unfortunately, as I intend to show in this article, the reality is rather different. I must make it clear at this stage that I am not suggesting this is due to any unethical practices on the part of the proprietors of the dating sites themselves. The problem lies with the fact the sites are being used by human beings and way in which human beings choose partners. This has the ironic consequence that online dating – far from providing a decisive advantage over dating services using older methods – actually makes things much harder.

A Brief History of Dating Services
The idea behind using dating services (agencies, personal ads, etc) has been around for a long time. The need for them is fairly obvious – not everybody lives and works in an environment where they can regularly meet people of the opposite sex; partying and clubbing does not appeal to everybody; and understandably there are many who would rather be proactive than wait for somebody to come along by chance.

The one problem with the “blind date” in its many guises is that no matter how well two people might get on by letter, over the phone or latterly by email, to slightly modify an old proverb the proof of the pudding is in the meeting. There is quite simply no way to determine without meeting somebody whether the so-called “chemistry” will be right. Consequently it will usually be necessary to go on a number of dates before meeting somebody compatible. Any dating service must therefore focus on quantity as well as quality of matches.

The idea of using computer technology to meet a partner is also not new and so-called “computer dating” agencies first appeared as long ago as the 1960s, in fact not long after computers came into general use. These early systems were fairly basic – subscribers filled in a questionnaire, the details were input to a computer, which would then print out a list of hopefuls for the subscriber to contact. In turn, his or her details might appear on the contact sheets of other members. Although the idea might seem positively alarming now, well into the 1980s the details provided included not just telephone numbers but home addresses of prospects! The market leader was Dateline International (a play on the international dateline) who opened their doors for business in 1966. Contact sheets listed six members - typically this might yield one or two actual dates.

These systems ran alongside more traditional “introduction agencies” and the time-honoured “personal” advertisements which were carried by many publications, notably Time Out.

These latter also began to benefit from technology during the 1990s when advertisers were able to record “voice greetings” in which they described themselves and which could be listened to by interested parties by dialling a premium-rate number and entering the relevant box number. If still interested, they could then leave a message for the advertiser, who in turn could retrieve their responses in a similar fashion. In addition to Time Out, publications such as the London Evening Standard and broadsheets such as the Guardian and the Independent began to offer this service to their readers.

Introduction agencies had a rather patchy reputation during the latter quarter of the last century, but some were more reputable and one in particular deserves an honourable mention. This is the quirkily-named Drawing down the Moon (DDM), which was and still is highly regarded. The format was extremely simple – if successful in passing a screening interview (membership was aimed at people of above-average intelligence who for the most part were university educated), subscribers filled in a thoughtfully-crafted questionnaire which was simply filed in a ring-binder together with a photograph. They could then look through the files of other members’ details and pick out about a dozen prospects which would then each be sent a photocopy of the member’s completed questionnaire together with their photograph and phone number. If the recipients were interested, they’d get in touch. Conversely the member might themselves be “chosen” by another member and sent their details. In both cases the onus would be on the recipient of the details to make contact. DDM advised their members that the “hit rate” was about 20-25%. Thus a “mailout” to twelve prospects might yield 2-3 actual dates. It is interesting to compare this with the “hit rate” for Dateline and note that they are very similar, despite the very different methodologies of the two organizations. We shall return to this point later.

Enter the Online Dating site
All the systems we have discussed above had drawbacks – with Dateline one knew nothing about the names on the contact sheet save they met the subscriber’s basic stipulations regarding age, height, education, location, etc. With the voicemail system, it was necessary to wait for the advertisement to appear and a certain amount of planning in re-running it at intervals. With DDM, it was necessary to schedule a trip to their offices in Kensington at fairly regular intervals to make selections. Nevertheless all of these systems made it fairly easy to get dates with potentially compatible members of the opposite sex, the odd “horror story” notwithstanding.

The online dating site would seem to offer all of the advantages of the above systems without any of the drawbacks:

1) Members can access detailed information on line about prospects.
2) Contact details don’t have to be exchanged until both members agree.
3) The site can be accessed from a member’s home at any time of the day or night.
4) Once a member has uploaded their details, they are ready to go – there is no waiting for an advertisement to appear in an external publication.

Given all these seeming advantages over the older systems, which did themselves produce reasonable results, one would expect online dating to represent another triumph for the internet. In fact the emergence of the dating site has made things far harder. The amount of time needed to secure a date in comparison to the older systems is far higher and the average “quality” of dates in terms of compatibility is certainly no better and is, if anything, worse. Furthermore the frustrations experienced along the way are apt to engender such negative sentiments about the whole concept of online dating as to make success even less likely.

The rosy picture
Wait a minute – is all this really true? Newspapers and magazines are apt to heap praise on dating sites and regularly carry features in which a reporter has joined a dating site and has been deluged by emails from hopefuls. However these feature writers have certain things in common:

1) They are always female.
2) They are always very attractive (or so the photograph that invariably accompanies the feature would suggest).
3) They are always in their twenties.

Have you ever seen such a feature written by a bald middle-aged man? No. Have you ever seen such a feature written by any man, or a single parent, or a woman over the age of 40? No – and I suggest assuming they want the story to contain at least one account of an actual date it would take a very patient editor indeed to commission such a feature.

The Reality
The absurd number of emails our sexy female 20-something reporters claim to receive in a single day would take a typical male member several years to realise. Most men, of course, aren’t in the habit of waiting for this to happen, so they start emailing prospects... and there the problems begin.

The vast majority of emails receive either no response or a negative response, the latter generally accompanied by a dubious reason why it is not possible to take things further (the common claim to have “met somebody” begs the question as to why are they continuing to use the site). Even if somebody enters into a dialogue there is a fairly high probability that they will suddenly break off communications without a word of explanation. It might take 20-30 or even more initial emails before a dialogue ensues which actually leads to a date. This is about five times worse than the hit rates associated with the other methods described above.

An explanation would be is that there is a huge imbalance of men over women using dating sites in relation to other methods. But this is not the case – although more men than women do use the sites overall, the imbalance isn’t that great (for example Dating Direct claim a ratio of 55% men against 45% women). Also if this was so one would expect the women to be “snapped up” very quickly. But that doesn’t happen – women who have made their excuses or not replied at all often continue to show up in searches months later, or even turn up on completely different sites. So the women don’t seem to be getting any more out of online dating than the men.

All of which can only be explained by the women rejecting a far higher percentage of would-be suitors at the first hurdle than they would with other dating systems.

The million-dollar question is why?

Why are the women so picky?
That women are generally far more picky than men isn’t really a mystery when one considers how long it takes to get a woman pregnant versus the time it takes to bring the subsequent pregnancy to term and bring up the child. The woman needs to know that the man is going to stick around and play his part in bringing up the child. Of no lesser importance to the woman is to choose a fit and healthy man to father her child – one who is likely to father fit and healthy children. These two goals frequently work at cross-purposes.

Homo sapiens is believed to have evolved in Africa 200,000-150,000 years ago. The earliest undisputed anatomically modern human to have so far been identified, H.s. idaltu, lived almost 160,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia. Although some authorities claim the mental evolution of our species (so-called modern human behaviour) lagged our physical evolution by a 100,000 years or more, this view is looking increasingly untenable but even if it accepted nobody doubts that by 50,000 years ago humans as mentally-adept as ourselves existed. But despite the beautiful art work produced by the people of this era, their lifestyle was that of the hunter-gatherer and remained so for tens of millennia. People lived in small groups, where everybody knew each other. Not until the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago do we see evidence of greater social complexity as agriculture began to replace hunter-gathering and the first proto-urban settlements such as Jericho and Catalhuyuk appeared; and the first state-level societies with complexity approaching that of modern society do not appear until around 6500 years ago with the rise of the Sumerian, Babylonian and Indus Valley civilizations.

Sexual selection was part of the original behavioural package which as stated above arose at least 50,000 years ago and probably much earlier. But the complex society in which humans now have to make mate choice has only existed for a fraction of that time. Sexual selection in humans, evolved for a hunter-gatherer society, has probably not had time to adjust to the new conditions.

If we accept, then, that mate selection has been problematic for humans under the social conditions of the last 6,500 years, it is no great mystery why the use of dating services complicates the matter still further. What has not yet been explained is why online dating compares so poorly with other dating methods.

Choosing a partner
It is generally accepted that people make up their minds about a prospective partner fairly quickly - estimates of just how long range from a few seconds to a few minutes, but it is certainly safe to say that if your date isn’t showing signs of attraction through their body-language after twenty minutes or so they never will. But how does attraction happen?

For the sake of this discussion we can dismiss such things as dress sense, money, having a flashy car etc. Not having these things can disqualify; conversely having them is no guarantee of success. I would argue that what is colloquially referred to as “chemistry” is largely independent of such things. This view is supported by recent research (Nature 451 pp760-762).

I have not the slightest doubt that a Nobel Prize awaits the person who can unravel the secret of what makes “chemistry” work. Certainly there are no end of theories – pheromones have become a prime suspect in recent years, in which case the notion of chemistry might literally be true. However the two main sensory modalities – sight and sound – almost certainly play a central role, with sight the more important of the two. What is certain is that all the sensory modalities are involved to an extent and hence there is no way the presence or absence of “chemistry” can be predicted in advance – it is necessary to meet a prospective partner to get a definitive answer.

What can be done is to improve the odds by giving hopefuls as much relevant information as possible about a prospective partner. I would argue that this is what dating sites fail to do; moreover their modus operandi encourages members to dismiss prospects on the basis of misleading information.

How online dating fails
By “relevant information” I mean sensory data. Let us now compare the various dating methods previously described and see how much sensory data they provide:

1) Dateline - None.
2) Drawing down the Moon - Photograph, handwriting.
3) Voicemail ads - Sound.
4) Online dating - Photograph.

If we accept that sight is more important than sound, the first reaction will be to think that surely systems that enable members to look at photographs are going to have the edge and that online dating sites are bettered only by the far more expensive DDM. There is no doubt that both dating sites and the people who use them (of both sexes) place great emphasis on members posting photographs of themselves. The sites claim members doing so receive up to seven times as many replies (albeit the obvious retort that “seven times f*** all is still f*** all!”). Women openly post that they will not reply to members who do not have a photograph (though in most cases having one seems to make very little difference). A milder comment is that “I like to see who I am talking to”. And thereby hangs the great fallacy - two great fallacies in fact.

Just how much information can be gleaned from a photograph? I would argue that it serves as little more than an aid to recognition when two people meet. I’d argue a photograph gives little clue as to whether or not you will be attracted to somebody. Some people are simply more photogenic than others. Another consideration is the quality of the photograph – at DDM members’ photographs would be screened and they would be advised if a photograph submitted for consideration didn’t do them full justice. This is a facility no dating sites offer. Yet despite these drawbacks, a significant number of women on receiving an email will look at the photograph that accompanies it and then don’t even bother to read the sender’s details.

I mentioned two great fallacies and the second is to think that a conversation by email constitutes “talking” to somebody. It doesn’t. The difference between the two is at least as great as the difference between seeing a photograph of somebody and seeing that person for real. The drawback online dating has even compared with Dateline becomes obvious when one considers the two following scenarios:

Scenario 1. Time – present day.
Mike picks out Jane’s details on a dating site and sends her a brief message:
“Hi Jane – I liked your pic and your details. I think we might have a few interests in common [lists examples]. Hope to hear from you – Mike.”
Jane notes that she does indeed like classical music, the theatre and art galleries. But the photograph is so-so. She makes a mental note to check out Mike’s details at some stage, but she never gets round to it.

Scenario 2. Time – 1982.
Mike receives Jane’s contact details. In the absence of any other course of action, he phones her.

“Hi, my name’s Mike, I got your name from Dateline”.
At this stage Jane of course has no foreknowledge of their shared interests, but she does think Mike has a rather sexy voice...

If, fast-forwarding to the 1990s, Mike was to place a voicemail ad, the outcome would be the same. Jane would read his ad, which contains sufficient detail to tempt Jane into listening to his voice greeting... she leaves him a message.

Drawing down the Moon doesn’t provide the vocal dimension, but Mike’s photograph is better, having been selected from a group submitted for consideration. Also his hand-written profile does provide considerably more insight than it would if it had been typed – it’s not just what you write but the way that you write it.

To sum up: Dateline succeeds by virtue of the very lack of information it provides – members are forced to make direct contact straightaway in order to achieve anything. Voicemail succeeds because it conveys sensory data – voice – about both advertiser and respondent. DDM succeeds by virtue of the exemplary quality of service it provides to its members – but it is far more expensive than other methods described here. Crucially though, online dating fails because members believe seeing photographs and exchanging emails constitutes seeing and talking to somebody.

But online dating services DO offer spoken voice
It is entirely true that many online dating sites do now offer members the opportunity to post a voice greeting or even a video of themselves. This on the face of it would refute the criticisms I have made. But to return to the point I made at the very start of the article, my criticisms are not directed at the sites themselves but the way they are used. Only a tiny fraction of members post a voice greeting; the number is so small as to be almost irrelevant. Where the sites are culpable is that while they constantly exhort members to post photographs, no corresponding effort is made to encourage members to post a voice greeting. But the membership can also be blamed – how many members threaten to boycott emails from those failing to post a voice greeting or say that they’d like to hear who they are talking to?

To ask the question posed by Lenin under rather different circumstances in 1902, what is to be done?

Really the dating sites have got to take the lead. Over a quarter of a century ago, using the then cutting edge technology of home videos, the Chelsea-based dating agency Masterview made a valiant attempt to tackle the problem. Members visited a studio where a short video was made of them in which they would talk about their interests, outlook on life and what they were looking for in a relationship. In a similar fashion to Drawing Down the Moon, they could review details of other members and choose those they were interested in. The drawback of the system was that it wasn’t possible for members to then send videos of themselves to prospects - they would receive only a photograph and contact details. But with modern technology, it is very easy to post a video of oneself on line and as noted, many dating sites do indeed offer their members this facility. What they need to do is to encourage or even obligate members to do so.

The problem is that they have little incentive to do so. While members are paying to use the sites, why should they impose conditions that would certainly discourage many people from joining? From the point of view of the sites themselves, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

The answer might be for a “niche player” to take up the challenge, offering a “premium” service at possibly a slightly higher price. Such a service ideally would also avoid the almost universal practice of having “free” members, i.e. those who register their details but never actually subscribe and thus cannot use most of a site’s features, usually including the ability to reply to messages. Thus the site would attract only people who are genuinely serious about using it to meeting a partner.

© Christopher Seddon 2008